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What happens if you take expired medication?

Written and medically reviewed by Dorcas Morak, Pharm.D

While performing your usual cleaning, you discovered expired pills in your medicine cabinet. You promptly decide to throw them away, but the current high price of medications holds you back. Then, in the hope of discovering an answer that would help you make an informed decision, you start researching what will happen if you take an expired drug.

What is a medication’s shelf life?

Medications contain both active and inactive pharmaceutical ingredients. The therapeutic results you experience after taking your medications are the result of the active ones. Over time, these components experience chemical changes that form a new chemical structure that can be dangerous, or at the very least, inadequate for the intended result. The shelf-life of a drug refers to the time during which its level of deterioration is still deemed safe for human consumption.

Medication shelf life is influenced by drug parameters such as dosage, form, and chemical stability, as well as environmental variables like light, temperature, humidity, etc. Unfavorable storage conditions can therefore reduce the shelf life of pharmaceuticals and render them unfit or ineffective before their actual expiration date.

Why are expiration dates important?

Drugs deteriorate over time, which can result in chemical compounds that are either harmful or useless. The expiration date is the deadline a pharmaceutical company specifies on the prescription label to inform the consumers of when the effectiveness and safety of the medications are still guaranteed.

What are beyond-use dates?

When the original pack of medications is altered, a new date called the "beyond-use date" is added to its label to let you know when it might no longer be safe to take it. The pharmaceutical manufacturer decides the expiration date which lasts 1 to 5 years following the requirements listed by the FDA.

However, once the container is opened, the conditions are no longer ideal for the test condition and the manufacturer expiration date may no longer be applicable. For instance, the eye drop's preservative might not be sufficient to prevent the growth of microorganisms that are introduced to it during use. Similar to this, after reconstitution, powder for oral suspension might not be stable beyond a few days. The beyond-use date can’t be farther than the expiration date.

What happens if you take expired medications?

Due to the potential changes in strength and nature of the ingredients, as well as the potential for contamination with foreign objects, the efficacy and safety of pharmaceuticals that have expired cannot be guaranteed. Although expired medications can remain safe and effective after the expiration date, the risk is not worth it.

How long can you take medicine after the expiration date?

Although a drug's actual shelf life might outlast its expiration date if stored properly, that is still not an acceptable reason to use expired drugs. Due to the potential for safety and effectiveness to be compromised, the FDA does not advise using expired drugs

Can you prolong a medicine’s shelf life?

If you store your drugs according to the manufacturer's instructions, you can preserve their integrity until they expire. However, storing your prescription under harsher conditions may result in shorter shelf life. For instance, storing medications that need to be refrigerated (like insulin) in the kitchen where the temperature is typically high, storing tablets that need to be kept dry in a humid location (like the bathroom), or storing oral antibiotic suspensions in the sun, etc. The drug's breakdown will be sped up by certain extreme conditions, reducing its shelf life and rendering it unfit for usage before its expiration date.

How to dispose of expired medicine?

You might be inspired to clean out your medicine cabinet and get rid of your expired medications now that you are aware that consuming outdated medications are not worth the risks. The FDA drug disposal recommendation on the package is helpful. Additionally, you can refer to this guide or contact your doctor or pharmacist for a better approach.

When you can receive up to 88% off the cost of your prescriptions with a free rxless prescription discount card or coupon, don't let the high cost of medications drive you to damage yourself with expired drugs.